Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Heads roll in Slovakia over sale of Bernini bust

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

The bust of Pope Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year has left a trail of criminal investigations and fired civil servants in its wake. When the museum announced the rediscovery and acquisition of the long-lost sculpture this June, the only details released about the purchase where that it belonged to an unnamed private collector who arranged a private sale via Sotheby’s London. The last time before then that it appeared on the historical record was when it was sold to a Viennese collector at an 1893 Borghese family estate sale.

Last month, details started to leak about the acquisition. The Getty was reported to have paid a jaw-dropping $33 million to buy the bust from a still-unnamed Slovakian art dealer who had bought it unattributed and then found out it was the real thing, not a copy after Bernini’s original. Somehow, the work had migrated from Vienna at the end of the 19th century to modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia. where it was in the collection of Slovakian painter Ernest Zmeták. In 2013, Zmeták’s heirs put some of this collection, including the bust of Pope Paul V, up for auction.

The bust, then attributed solely to an “unknown Italian sculptor,” was put up for auction twice, once in December of 2013 for 47,000 euro, and when it failed to sell, again almost a year later for 24,000 euro. Shortly after the bust couldn’t find a buyer even at the 50% off fire sale, the auction house sold the bust privately for the reserve price of 24,000 euro to one Clément Guenebeaud, a French collector living in Bratislava.

It was Guenebeaud who realized the bust was made by Bernini himself. He tried to sell it on his own but the large hole in its ownership history made potential buyers wary. A famous work of art that mysteriously traveled from Vienna to Slovakia over the course of the 20th century runs the risk of being Nazi loot which could mire the current owner in a messy and expensive restitution battle. Sotheby’s was game, though, and through them Guenebeaud was able to sell the bust to the Getty. The Baroque masterpiece left Slovakia without incident.

After the Getty announced their new treasure with a splash, the fact that a small country with limited resources that could really use a tourism boost had somehow let a 17th century bust by one of the greatest sculptors in the world slip through its fingers did not go unnoticed back in Bratislava. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič ordered an investigation into the bust debacle and filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender involved in the sale on suspicion that someone involved in the appraisal and sale knew its true value but deliberately and fraudulently obscured it.

As of now, there is no evidence of deliberate deception. The auction house in Bratislava is a local outfit without the depth of expertise necessary to confidently attribute a sculpture to Bernini. Ernest Zmeták apparently had no idea the bust was original, nor did his heirs. The only person who had any idea, Guenebeaud, didn’t hide the fact that he thought it was a genuine Bernini in his application for an export license. He wrote that it was probably by Bernini and estimated its value at around €7 million, but the ministry employee in charge or arranging the permits changed the description from “bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini” to “bust after Bernini.” Apparently she decided to go with the auction house’s assessment rather than Guenebeaud’s, and the commission that reviews permanent export applications accepted it without ordering an expert examination to confirm or deny the disputed authorship. Minister Maďarič fired her and the director of the department in charge of issuing export permits.

The timeline of all these events is foggy. It’s not clear who determined the bust was original. It could be Alexander Kader, head of the department of European sculpture at Sotheby’s London, but usually the top experts in the field are consulted for works of this importance. Presumably the Getty wouldn’t have shelled out $33 million without being satisfied the bust was by Bernini.

If the special commission tasked with investigating irregularities in the export license find it to have been granted improperly, it’s possible the license will be revoked and the Slovakian government will request that the Getty return the bust. The museum does not seem concerned.

In an email to artnet News Ron Hartwig, the Getty Museum’s vice-president of communications assured that the bust “will remain on view to the public at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

He explained “The Bust of Pope Paul V (1621) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was legally exported from Slovakia, legally sold in the United Kingdom and legally imported into the United States. Whatever the nature of the Slovakian government’s inquiry, it has no impact whatsoever on the Getty’s ownership of the bust.”


Noah’s round ark takes to the water

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

The author examining the Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Five years ago, the news broke that premier cuneiform scholar Dr. Irving Finkel, Deputy Keeper of Middle East at the British Museum, had translated a new account of the ancient Babylonian Flood Story on a clay tablet from 1,750 B.C. and found directions for making a round ark. There are multiple versions of the deluge myth in the ancient Near East. One features Ziusudra, King of Sumer, as the Noah figure and is found on a single tablet from the 17th century B.C. excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Utnapishtim who was tasked by the god Enki-Ea to build a boat that would save his family, craftsmen, plants and animals from the flood the other gods were sending to destroy humanity. The earliest surviving Gilgamesh tablets date to the 18th century B.C. The Akkadian version is named after its hero, Atra-Hasis, and is found on fragments of tablets also dating back to the 18th century B.C. The Flood Story on the tablet recently translated by Dr. Finkel is the Akkadian Atra-Hasis version.

Drawing of Gilgamesh tablet pieced together from fragments in Smith's "Chaldean Account of Genesis"All of these versions of the Flood Story precede the Biblical version with the one God and Noah by a thousand years, a fact that caused a sensation in 1872 when British Museum Assyriologist George Smith announced he’d found the first cuneiform account of the Great Flood, now known to be the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Smith published his find in the 1876 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, a seminal volume in the history of Assyriology even though several of his translations, admittedly makeshift solutions to missing bits in the sources (he suggested Gilgamesh was to be read Izdubar), have since been corrected.

Finkel published his translation of the Atra-Hasis tablet last year in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, a fascinating archaeological detective story that manages that rare feat of conveying its author’s contagious enthusiasm along with the scholarly information. I’m sure in someone else’s hands the analysis of cuneiform tablets can make for dry reading, but Dr. Finkel’s ebullience shines through on every vigorously-turned page.

That endlessly renewable resource of enthusiasm played a key role in the translation of the round ark tablet. Dr. Finkel first encountered the small cuneiform tablet in 1985 when it was one of several pieces Douglas Simmonds brought to the British Museum for expert assessment. Douglas’ father Leonard was in the Royal Air Force after World War II and had amassed a significant collection of Near East artifacts during his travels. After Leonard’s death, Douglas researched the objects. Finkel had already helped him with several cylinder seals and clay tablets before the fateful 1985 encounter.

As one of very few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform, Finkel was able to read the clean first verses of the tablet: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-Hasis…” That passage is famous among Assyriologists as the opening lines of the Atra-Hasis Flood Story. Finkel was thrilled at such a rare find and asked to keep the tablet so he could translate the whole thing which is covered in cuneiform front and back, but Mr. Simmonds was unwilling to part with it. It wasn’t until 2009 when Dr. Finkel spotted Douglas Simmonds at the Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition that the latter finally agreed to bring the tablet in for translation.

The Ark Tablet, ca. 1,750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.The sixty lines of the Ark Tablet go into unprecedented detail on the design of the boat and the materials used in construction. None of the other Atra-Hasis tablets describe the vessel. This is most of what’s on the front of the tablet:

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat;
Spurn property and save life!
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan;
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high,
You saw kannu ropes and aslu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]
Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!
It will surely consume 14,430 (sutu)!”
“I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long;
I set up 3,600 stanchions within her
Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high;
I constructed her cabins above and below.”
“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides;
I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior;
I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins;
I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sutu) of kupru-bitumen
And I poured 3,600 (sutu) of ittu-bitumen within.
The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me];
(so) I added five fingers of lard,
I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure;
(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)
…(= I completed the mixture).

These quantities are enormous, enough palm-fiber rope, wooden ribs and stanchions to build a coracle 3,600 square meters in area, almost two-thirds the size of a soccer field, with walls 20 feet high. If the amount of rope described here were laid out in a single line, it would reach from London to Edinburgh. The vats of bitumen were necessary to waterproof a boat whose hull is, after all, made of rope.

The back of the tablet is more damaged than the front, with significant chunks missing, but what is there continues the discussion of bitumen application and then describes Atra-Hasis and his family getting on the boat. In one moving passage, Atra-Hasis prays to the moon god Sin that the coming tragedy be averted. Sin’s reply includes a line that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever heard the Noah story.

“Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation
And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)]”
“But the wild animals from the steppe [(...)]
Two by two the boat did [they enter]…”

Armed with this unique description, Dr. Finkel contacted ancient ship specialists to see if they could construct a scale version of the ark. The project was filmed for a television program called The Real Noah’s Ark which first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last September. It apparently aired as Rebuilding Noah’s Ark on the National Geographic channel, but I missed it. The British Museum’s YouTube channel just posted a five-minute introduction to the episode a few days ago, which was the first I’d heard of it. The program doesn’t appear to be available on demand from the Channel 4 website at the moment, or at least it’s not working for me. It has, however, been posted on Vimeo and I strongly urge you to watch it while the watching’s good.

Simply stated, this show has everything: Mesopotamian history, issues in ancient urban water management, the Ziggurat of Ur, dangers military and ecological, southern Iraq’s enchanting marshlands, cuneiform tablets and the laser-scanning thereof, ship design, archaeological geology, traditional crafts, how reeds can be used to make an AMAZING house, bitumen drama, flood legends and their transmission from Babylon to Judea, the reality of regular flooding in the Fertile Crescent, several exceptional beards and at the end, a big ol’ round boat.


The Campbell Sisters dance into UK museums

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

A unique life-sized marble sculpture capturing the lovely young Campbell sisters mid-dance has been jointly acquired by the Victoria & Albert and the Scottish National Gallery. The sculptural group sold at auction last July for $868,090 to a foreign buyer. To keep the rare masterpiece in the country, the sale price was raised by the museums thanks to grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. The V&A and the Scottish National Gallery will share joint custody of The Campbell Sisters, each museum displaying it for seven years at a time.

Made by Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini around 1821, The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz depicts the girls stepping lively side-by-side as their delicately draped gowns seem to flutter in the breeze. (It was Bartolini who dubbed the dance a “Valtzer” even though it’s obvious they’re not waltzing. The face-to-face whirling dance we know as the waltz became popular in aristocratic circles starting in the 1770s, so you’d think he would have been familiar with it.) Sisters Emma and Julia were the youngest of the eight children of Lady Charlotte Campbell, daughter of the 5th Duke of Argyll, and her distant cousin/husband John Campbell. It wasn’t a great match, fortune-wise, and after his death the Lady Charlotte had significant money troubles. By the time Bartolini immortalized Emma and Julia in graceful motion, they were living with their widowed mother in Florence where a noblewoman in reduced circumstances could live more comfortably than she could in England or Scotland.

Given their comparative brokeness, it’s not certain who commissioned the work. According to Bartolini’s studio notes, the sculpture was commissioned by the girls’ brother Mr. Campbell, but the whole family had limited funds so it’s unlikely their eldest brother Walter would have spent £500 on a marble life-sized portrait of his sisters. Perhaps a more likely candidate is the girls’ uncle, Lady Charlotte’s brother, George William Campbell, the 6th Duke of Argyll. Bartolini’s notes say they shipped it to Edinburgh and at some point the sculpture wound up in the dining room of Inveraray Castle, seat of the Dukes of Argyll. There are no references to its arrival in the castle archives.

Bartolini was famous in his time for his portrait sculptures. He had been one of Napoleon’s favorites and his fortunes suffered somewhat in the wake of his patron’s final defeat and exile, but he made a decent living in the late 18teens and twenties in large part thanks to portrait commissions. A great many portrait busts of prominent men and women of the period (the Bonaparte siblings and spouses, Alexander I of Russia, the Duke of Alba, the Duchess of Sutherland and dozens more) made by Bartolini are in museums and collections all over Europe and the United States today.

Canova’s static, posed neoclassical aesthetic still dominated, while Bartolini preferred a softer, more naturalistic approach he’d learned studying painting in Paris under Jacques-Louis David. Despite his eye for naturalism and movement so clearly evinced in The Campbell Sisters, the portrait of the young ladies is one of only two action sculptures made by Bartolini. The other one was Neoptolemus Casting Astyanax from the Walls of Troy, made in 1841 and widely considered Bartolini’s chef-d’oeuvre. Commissioned by Donna Rosa Poldi-Pezzoli, the Astyanax group would become the core of Poldi-Pezzoli Museum founded in Milan by her son Don Gian-Giacomo. Bartolini created a scene of dynamic action — Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) about to throw the child Astyanx from Troy’s ramparts to his death while his mother Andromache lies prostrate at his feet, one arm reaching up his leg — in marked contrast to his static portraits.

Sadly the sculpture and its plaster model were destroyed by aerial bombing in World War II. A bronze replica made in 1902 after the original marble, then located in the courtyard of the museum building, was damaged in a hailstorm, has survived, as have preparatory drawings now in the Uffizi and the Morgan Library and Museum. That makes The Campbell Sisters the only surviving Bartolini sculpture that captures characters in movement. Because of that and because it’s a much earlier work that uniquely combines the portraiture he was best known for and an action scene, the UK museums are thrilled to get to keep The Campbell Sisters.

It is on display at the V&A right now, where it will remain until November 20th. After that, it moves to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh for the first seven year visitation period. For more about Lorenzo Bartolini, peruse the marvel that is this website dedicated to the artist and his art by Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. It literally has his entire output in the Works gallery, plus gobs more information everywhere. The English version works too! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the alternate languages of smaller museum sites only have a single introductory page while all the rest of the links are broken.


How to wash a 17th c. tapestry

Friday, August 14th, 2015

I’ve found a whole new subset of tapestry porn courtesy of the consistently entertaining Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel: tapestry washing! The tapestry in question is February, one of a series depicting the 12 months that was commissioned by the future Charles I (then Prince of Wales) from the Mortlake Tapestry Works in 1623. At 13 feet (398 centimeters) by 11’4″ (347 cm), it’s one of the largest tapestries in the collection of Hampton Court Palace and, like the ones in the Kunsthistorisches Museum we just oogled, is in a perpetually delicate state of conservation.

Washing any antique tapestry is a conservation challenge, and washing the monumental ones is an immense logistical challenge as well. Hampton Court Palace experts have built a custom tapestry bath to handle their giant textiles. They use de-ionised water, a special detergent and a phalanx of lab-coated conservators to ever so gently lower the tapestry into a shallow pool where it’s washed with utmost tenderness and care. Once the tapestry is rinsed, conservators dry it by blotting with towels and then surround it with fans. Watch the magic happen:

That video seriously has everything. It combines my childhood adoration of carwashes with my adult adoration of antique textiles and the nitty-gritty of conservation that usually takes place exclusively behind the scenes. Also, I love how gently the conservators sponge the surface like they’re bathing a gigantic wool, silk, gold and silver baby in a massive bassinet.

February really is a baby compared to one its siblings: the tapestry of May and June which is a double-wide, each month represented in vertical sections divided by a border. It’s more than 13 feet high and almost 16 feet wide. I’d love to see that one gingerly unrolled into its megabath.

The series was commissioned by Charles I when he was still Prince of Wales. His father James I established the royal tapestry manufacturers in 1619, inspired by Henry IV of France who had founded the first royal tapestry workshop in Paris in 1607 as part of a program to revive production of French luxury goods that had declined so precipitously during the Wars of Religion. James enlisted Sir Francis Crane to set up the shop and then scoured the Low Countries for the greatest tapestry weavers he could poach. Apparently James missed his calling as a recruiter, because 50 top weavers were ensconced in the new workshop on the Thames at Mortlake, just outside of London, before the Netherlandish authorities knew they were gone. They didn’t hear about it until the ambassador reported in a 1620 letter that the tapestry manufacturing capabilities of the Low Countries were threatened by the alarming number of their best weavers suddenly in London.

Aided by apprentices James insisted be selected from London’s city hospitals/orphanages so that pauper boys could learn a lucrative trade instead of living in penury the rest of their lives, the Flemish weavers hit the ground running. They set to work on royal commissions from the king, Prince Charles, James’ favorite the Duke of Buckingham and other aristocratic buyers. Charles ordered the Twelve Months set from Madrid where he was engaged in very controversial negotiations to marry Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. He wrote to his people in London that they should pay £500 for the set, quite a modest sum considering that in the same letter he directed them to pay £700 for some tapestry cartoons from Italy.

The Prince of Wales became King Charles I in 1625 and patronized the Mortlake Tapestry Works even more than his father had. He subsidized it to the tune of thousands of pounds a year as well as commissioning some of the greatest tapestries in the royal collection. It was Charles I who bought the Raphael cartoons and commissioned tapestry designs from masters like Rubens and Van Dyke. After Sir Francis Crane’s death in 1637, the tapestry works became official property of the crown.


Threads of Power: superb tapestry porn

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has one of the greatest collections of tapestries in the world thanks largely to the Imperial collection of the Hapsburg dynasty. Most of the tapestries are kept in careful storage for conservation purposes and are too delicate to be on public display. Now the museum has placed select rare masterpieces of 16th century Belgian tapestry on display in Threads of Power, an exhibition that explores how the elite used the expense, subject matter and sumptuous materials of tapestry as propaganda tools to broadcast their status and wealth. The 14 tapestries will be on display along with preparatory sketches, cartoons, woodcuts, engravings, etchings, oil paintings on canvas, coins and other artworks associated with the tapestries from July 14th through September 20th, 2015.

With the exception of one tapestry made in the early 1700s from a 16th century design (the tapestry makers kept original cartoons and drawings of their most popular pieces for decades, even centuries, so entire series could be reissued upon request), all of the tapestries were manufactured in Brussels during the 16th century. Influenced by Raphael whose cartoons for Pope Leo X in 1515 ushered in the era of prestigious artists drawing for tapestries, top court artists like Barend van Orley and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen created the designs that were woven into textiles by the greatest Brussels workshops.

Using precious materials like gold and silver thread, silk and wool, weavers took years to make a single wall hanging. Tapestries were far more expensive than paintings, the exclusive province of the most moneyed nobles and royals. The subjects depicted on these large, luxurious canvases matched the size and importance of the medium. Scenes of royal courts, battles, Biblical stories, mythological figures were idealized versions of the grand personages and who commissioned the works to decorate their walls.

And not just their walls, either. The tapestries were used on state occasions, hung on a dais or as a baldachin over the throne. One of the tapestries in the exhibit, An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta, is a 1712-21 reissue of one of 12 tapestries in a series first commissioned in 1546 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to celebrate his capture of Tunis from the Ottoman Turks 11 years earlier. The Conquest of Tunis series was designed by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen and woven by Willem de Pannemaker’s workshop in Brussels. The contract between Charles and Pannemaker stipulates in detail which materials were to be used: 63 colors of silk from Granada, worsted thread from Lyon, seven kinds of gold thread and three of silver provided directly by Charles V. Charles required that Pannemaker employ seven weavers to work on each tapestry all day. It still took them five years to complete the series for a total cost of 26,000 pounds ($1 million today).

The full series traveled with Charles V and was unfurled at every state occasion and religious ceremony. They were draped in the royal receiving rooms of the Brussels palace and in Madrid’s Alcázar palace under Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain. They were so famous and so well-used that they had to be retired for their own preservation less than a century after they were made and replacements ordered from the original cartoons.

But let’s face, this post is really all about the textile porn. The Kunsthistorisches Museum has been kind enough to provide lovely pictures of some of the tapestries on display at the exhibition. I wish the photos of the complete tapestries are larger (it’s rare that even a high res picture of a monumental piece fully satisfies me), but coupled with extreme close-ups of details, you can get a real sense of the glorious materials and exquisite craftsmanship of Low Country Renaissance tapestries.

Heracles Decapitating the Lernaean Hydra, Tapestry from the series “The Labours of Heracles,” produced under Michiel van Orley, Oudenaarde, c. 1550/65, wool, silk; 418 x 544 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband.

Mercury with the Zodiac Sign “Cancer” (June), Tapestry from the series “The Twelve Months,” produced in Brussels, c. 1560/70, wool silk, metal threads; 419 x 468 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta, Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46, produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721, wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm.Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Tapestry Featuring the Arms of Emperor Charles V, produced under Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, c. 1540, wool, silk, metal threads; 197 x 273 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Fortitude, Tapestry from the series “The Seven Virtues,” design: Michiel Coxcie (c. 1499 – 1592), produced under Frans Geubels, Brussels, before 1549, wool, silk, metal; 352 x 469 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

The Apostle Paul before King Agrippa, Tapestry from the series “Scenes from the Life of the Apostle Paul,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), c. 1529/30; produced under Paulus van Oppenem, Brussels, c. 1535, wool, silk, metal; 423 x 453 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Acedia, Tapestry from the series “The Seven Deadly Sins,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), c. 1533/34, produced under Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, c. 1548/49, wool, silk, metal; 456 x 708 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Vertumnus Approaching Pomona Disguised as a Vintner, Tapestry from the series “Vertumnus and Pomona after Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), Brussels, c. 1544, produced in Brussels, between c. 1548 and 1575, wool, silk, metal threads; 425 x 503 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

The Triumphal Procession Continued: Displaying Captured Arms and Armour, Tapestry from the series “Deeds and Triumphs of Dom Joao de Castro,” design: c. 1550/57, produced under Bartholomeeus Adriaensz (?), Brussels, after 1557, Wool, silk, metal; 354 x 473 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Throne Canopy, design: Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527 – c. 1606) and Michiel Coxcie (c. 1499 – 1592, figures), Brussels, c. 1561 (dated), wool, silk, metal threads; back: 419 x 271 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

For more details about the tapestries and related artwork on display, read the exhibition booklet (pdf). Here’s an introductory video from the museum about the show. Keep your eye open for an amazing close-up view of gold metal threads around the 1:40 mark. Click the CC button for English subtitles.


Brussels’ Manneken Pis tested for authenticity

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

Manneken Pis, a small bronze statue of a little boy urinating in perpetuity in the historic center of Brussels, has become an iconic representation of the city’s irreverent spirit. Reproductions flood souvenir shops, candy shops, delicious Belgian chocolate shops. The little fellow is dressed in new outfits several times a month and is a magnet for tourists as well as the beloved “first citizen of Brussels.” The one micturating in place right now is a reproduction, but the original is on display in the nearby City of Brussels Museum. Or is it?

The original statue Manneken Pis was made in 1619 by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder, a native son of Brussels who had made a name for himself making sculpting statues and features for churches which had been stripped of all adornment during the Protestant iconoclasm that cut a destructive swath through the Low Countries in 1566. It is said to have been the donation of a rich burgher whose lost son was found urinating on the spot where the statue now stands. It is said to have been inspired by a little boy who put out the fires of a besieging army by pissing on them. It is said to have been inspired by a boy who urinated on a fuse preventing explosives from destroying the city.

One of the many origin stories doesn’t get bandied about so often anymore, but it was just as popular as the lost child, fire and fuse extinguishing legends. It ties Brussels’ favorite son to an ugly side of Brussels history that was celebrated for almost 600 years, a so-called miracle centered around a classic medieval Blood Libel horror show. In 1370, so the libel goes, a wealthy Jew from Enghien bribed a Jewish convert to Christianity to steal consecrated hosts for him to desecrate. When the rich man was killed under mysterious circumstances, his scared wife gave the purloined ciborium to the Jews of Brussels where they assembled at the synagogue on Good Friday, no less, to profane the hosts. When they stabbed the wafers, blood miraculously poured from them. The Brussels congregation were duly terrified and paid an another Jewish convert to Christianity, a woman this time, to pass the hot potato on to the Jews of Cologne. She ratted them out to her parish priest.

On her testimony, the rulers of Brabant, Wenceslaus I of Bohemia and his wife, the actual heiress to the duchy, Duchess Joanna, sentenced all those involved in the stabbing of the hosts to death and banished every other Jew from Brabant. Six were burned at the stake. All Jewish property was confiscated. The Holy Hosts were reclaimed, the ostensibly pierced ones set in bejeweled remonstrances and carried in a great annual procession through the city. From the 16th century the yearly processions of the Blessed Sacrament of Miracles were official state events. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had 10 stained glass windows installed in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula depicting the Blood Libel/miracle. In the 19th century Kings Leopold I and II of Belgium and other nobles added another five windows depicting the growth of the Cult of the Miracle. The 500th anniversary of the miracle was celebrated with great fanfare in 1870.

World War II brought it all to a halt. In the aftermath of the mass-murder of Belgian Jews in the Holocaust, the immolation of Jews in the 14th century suddenly didn’t look like a quaint local custom worth celebrating. After the Papal decree of Nostra aetate promulgated in 1965 officially repudiated all anti-Semitic acts, beliefs and displays as inconsistent with the spirit of one particular Jew the church is very fond of, the Brussels Archdiocese derecognised the Cult of the Miracle. Since the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula couldn’t very well take down their stained glass windows like they took down the tapestries, in 1977 Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens installed a bronze plaque in the former chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (now the treasury) abjuring the so-called miracle.

With the Cult of the Miracle holding so prominent place in the history of Brussels, it seems inevitable that a story would be conjured up connecting it to the first citizen of Brussels, Manneken Pis. In this version of the origin story, an old Jewish man kidnapped a beautiful Christian boy from the very spot where the fountain now stands during the first procession of the Hosts. The kidnapper planned to crucify his victim, but the boy’s father prayed fervently to another local miracle, the statue of the Virgin Mary in the church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Succor), and the old man got scared. He dropped off the child in the same place where he had taken him. The boy’s parents found him there, urinating against the wall. In gratitude, they had the fountain built and added a topper to the church’s dome in the shape of the pyx that held the hosts.

Unsurprisingly, this story is internally inconsistent nonsense. The church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours wasn’t even built until the 17th century. Although there was a small church on the site in the 13th century, it was dedicated to St. James the Great and was a step on the pilgrim road to Compostela. The wish-granting statue of Mary was discovered there in 1625 and quickly became such a popular object of veneration that less than 50 years later the old St. James church was replaced with the new Baroque church dedicated to the miraculous Mary.

Even Manneken Pis’ more recent history is nebulous. It was hidden in 1695 to keep it safe during King Louis XIV of France’s bombardment of Brussels and was returned after the fires were extinguished. It was looted by English troops in 1745, damaged by French troops in 1747 and stolen by pardoned convict Antoine Lycas in October 1817. Lycas was arrested in November and sentenced to hard labour for life for the theft. The statue, or one that looked like it, was put back in its place the next year. It was stolen again 1963 and found in Antwerp. The last theft was in 1965 and it was the most damaging of them all. It was found in 1966 in a canal in two pieces.

After that, a replica statue was installed in the fountain while the putative original statue was given over to the care and feeding of the City of Brussels Museum. It was extensively restored in 2003 and is now in one piece again, on display along with a myriad replicas showing off the many cute outfits Manneken Pis has sported over the years.

Researcher Géraldine Patigny of the Free University of Brussels believes the original may never have been recovered after the 1817 theft. The history of the statue’s whereabouts relies mainly on news stories and folklore. With war and theft leaving large holes in the historical record, there is little relevant documentary evidence that would allow researchers to trace Manneken Pis’ steps. They’re hoping science can fill the gap.

Using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, the research team will analyze the metal composition of the statue. If the bronze alloy contains nickel, that will be strong evidence that it was made in the 19th century. If not, that increases the likelihood that the statue is original but of course can’t confirm its age. Researchers will also take tiny samples from the surface and interior of the statue to examine the erosion pattern and patina for clues to the statue’s age. Comparisons with samples of bronze from the period and workshop might help determine if Manneken Pis we know now is the one made by Jérôme Duquesnoy in 1619.


Can you decipher the inscription on this sword?

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

I’m asking for a friend. (The British Library is my friend, right?) On display at the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition is a medieval double-edged sword made of steel with an inlaid gold wire inscription on one side. The inscription appears to read:


Experts haven’t been able to decipher this mysterious assortment of letters, so the British Library’s phenomenal Medieval Manuscripts blog is opening up the floor to the Internet. Some think it was a religious dedication of some kind using the first initials of words. There are inscribed crosses on the other side and an inlaid crescent near the point on both sides which may be the maker’s mark.

The sword was discovered in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July of 1825 by workers widening and deepening the river just below the lock to make room for larger vessels. The Bishop of Lincoln gave the sword to the Royal Archaeological Institute which in 1858 donated it to the British Museum. It dates to around 1250-1330 and has a straight cross guard with a wheel-shaped pommel atop the grip. Weighing 2 lb 10 oz and measuring 38 inches long, the sword was a killer, capable of cleaving a man’s skull in two.

This kind of sword was a classic knightly weapon of the 13th century and is depicted in many an effigy and illustration. Here’s an example from the British Library’s 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France in which French knights besiege Rouen in 1203/1204 during King Philip Augustus’ invasion of Normandy.

In fact, the sword was believed to have a very close connection to French knights from that turbulent period. When the sword was first discovered, workers found other armature — swords, daggers, chain mail — in the muck of the riverbed leading to speculation that these were the remains of French knights who had drowned in the river after the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. When the First Barons’ War broke out between King John and his nobles in 1215 after John refused to abide by the terms of Magna Carta, the barons invited Prince Louis of France to take the throne of England. He accepted and turned up with an army in May of 1216. Louis waltzed into London unopposed and was proclaimed king in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He doesn’t make the official king list because he was never crowned, but for a while in 1216-1217 the Dauphin of France actively occupied half of England.

The tide turned when King John died in October of 1216. Even though John’s son Henry was only nine years old, barons who had sided with Louis switched sides in droves. William Marshal, “the greatest knight that ever lived,” was Henry’s regent and fought at the head of his army, drawing more knights to abandon Louis for Henry. On May 20th, 1217, forces loyal to the nine-year-old King Henry III of England attacked the city of Lincoln, then held by the French. The English held Lincoln Castle, however, so while Marshall’s army took the north gate of the city, Falkes de Breauté deployed his crack crossbowmen along the castle ramparts to rain a hellfire of bolts into the French occupiers. It was a rout, followed by a very thorough pillaging of the city that has gone down in history as the Lincoln Fair. French knights who weren’t killed or captured fled, some of them sailing down the Witham. Some of the ships, laden with men, arms and armour, sank drowning the flower of French chivalry and, ostensibly, leaving their stuff behind for canal diggers to find 600 years later.

Without identifying marks connected to specific knights, this story is impossible to prove. Still, the design and period of the sword make it relevant as a weapon very much like those used during the battles between the English crown and its unruly barons. It’s neat to think that it may even go a step further and be an actually relict of the First Barons’ War.

If you have any ideas about what the inscription might mean, join the party in the comments on the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry where smart people are saying smart things.


Makeup heir buys rare medieval panel for National Gallery

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

An extremely rare early 14th century panel painting by Giovanni da Rimini has been purchased by the National Gallery with funds donated by cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. The work is an oil and tempera painting on gilded wood depicting Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints by Giovanni da Rimini, an important artist in turn of the 14th century Rimini. It is the left panel of a diptych and is the only work by Giovanni da Rimini in the UK. In fact, there are only two other easel paintings conclusively attributed to Giovanni da Rimini: the right panel from this diptych in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini) and The Virgin and Child with Five Saints in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Faenza.

Giovanni was the leading artist in a group of artists from the northern Italian city of Rimini whose innovative approach combined the devotional intensity and symbolism of Byzantine iconography with the more naturalistic figural depictions that would follow. The works of the Rimini school are therefore important transitional pieces that bridge the gap between late medieval fresco masters like Giotto and the early Renaissance.

This left panel of the diptych is the greatest of the three known works by Giovanni da Rimini. The right panel is more traditional, divided into six squares of equal size which depict scenes from the life of Christ in chronological order. The left panel takes a more creative approach in composition and subject. The top two thirds is divided into two vertical quadrants with the right quadrant divided into two again. That bottom third is divided into two scenes but the border line between them is further to the right than the centered vertical of the top section. This gives the panel a more dynamic design and allows the artist to introduce variety of composition. The double-height section in the upper left depicts the Apotheosis of Saint Augustine. Since there’s so much space, Giovanni was able to create a temple-like empty tomb for Augustine with a heavenly host of angels above and a crowd of astounded onlookers around it. Augustine is in the middle of the angels wearing the mitre.

The two scenes to the right of the Apotheosis are the Crowning of the Virgin up top and a celebratory crowd of saints and angels beneath, a sort of flipped version of Augustine’s scene. Notice the angel with his back to the viewer in the center of holy crowd. Those wings are an early example of foreshortening in medieval art. The left of the bottom third of the panel is dedicated to the Dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, when the Emperor Maxentius deployed 50 of the greatest philosophers in Rome to defeat her in debate. She won and a bunch of the philosophers converted. The last scene on the bottom right shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata in front of John the Baptist with a seraph above them.

The panel arrived in England from the collection of 19th century Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini. Considered one of the greatest academic painters in Rome during his lifetime, Camuccini was showered with portrait commissions, appointments and titles during his lifetime. He spent his fortune collecting the 16th and 17th century Italian masters he used to copy when he was a student, accumulating more than 70 highly praised pieces before his death in 1844. In 1853, his heirs sold the entire Camuccini collection to Algernon Percy, 6th Duke of Northumberland, who installed the artworks in the family seat of Alnwick Castle.

Giovanni da Rimini’s panel remained on the walls of Alnwick Castle adorning the boudoir of the duchess until July of last year when the current Duke put it up for auction at Sotheby’s London. The pre-sale estimate was £2-3 million ($3,428,000 – 5,142,000) and the hammer price including buyer’s premium was £5,682,500 ($9,739,237). When the anonymous buyer asked for an export license, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the work to give UK institutions a chance to raise the purchase price and keep the one-of-a-kind piece in the country.

Aidan Weston-Lewis from the [Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] said:

This jewel-like, exquisitely preserved, seven hundred-year old panel is by a good margin the most important example in the UK of the seminal Riminese school of painting. Although this country can boast impressive collections of early Italian art, there is nothing comparable to this in any British public collection.

With the clock ticking, Ronald S. Lauder, son of beauty industry mogul Estée Lauder, struck an unusual deal with the National Gallery: he’d donate the £4.919 million necessary to for them to buy the painting as long as the museum agreed to loan him the panel for his lifetime. He would then loan it back to the museum for display, first in 2017, then up to once every three years after that. After Lauder’s death (he’s 71 years old), the painting would physically join the National Gallery’s permanent collection. The NG took the deal with alacrity.

This isn’t the first time one of the Camuccini paintings from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection was saved for the nation after a sale that would have taken it out of the country. In 2003 the National Gallery had to scramble to raise a crazy £34.88 million ($54 million) to acquire Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks after the Duke accepted an exorbitant purchase offer from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A temporary export bar that was extended several times gave the museum a year to raise the huge sale price from grants and private donations. The hard-won masterpiece has been on loan to the Minneapolis of Arts from the National Gallery since March. The exhibition ends on August 16th, so if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis you should hustle to catch the $50 million Raphael before it returns to London.


Bronze Age knife found on Isle of Wight beach

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

When Oxfordshire couple Christopher and June Preece vacationed last month on the Isle of Wight, they didn’t just bring sandals and sunscreen with them. Christopher packed his trusty metal detector too, so he and his beloved could take romantic walks on the beach sweeping the sand, yearning for a sweet serenade of loud beeps. The dream came true when they found a few metal artifacts under a slab of clay as they explored Sandown Beach: one wedge-shaped blade and one round token.

Chris said: “We love searching for items with our metal detectors and were walking on Sandown Beach when it buzzed and we noticed that the objects looked unusual.

“I have a keen interest in history and immediately thought they were very old, because the knife has a green colour which is often found on old copper. The shape also gave me an indication it was an historical artefact.

“We decided to take it to the visitor centre in Newport so that it could be passed on and identified.”

The staff at the visitor centre in the Newport Guildhall called the local finds liaison officer, Frank Basford, to examine the objects. He found that the blade was late Bronze Age knife made of copper alloy. It is incomplete and the break is very old so it’s probably been this way a long time. The tang, collars and blade survive identifying it as a chisel-like implement that was used to work leather. Just two inches long from curved cutting edge to the tapered end of the tang and weighing half an ounce, the tool’s small size was practical for the crafting of leather; it wouldn’t have made much of a weapon or chopping blade. It’s a rare piece, but others of similar design have been found before. The style dates it to around 1,000-800 B.C.

The metal button is also made of copper alloy. It was made in one piece with an integral drilled shank (most of which is now missing leaving just the stub behind) that would have been sewn to the garment. The front of the button is stamped or punched with a border of small circles. Inside each circle are incised patterns of parallel lines. In the center of the button is a saltire (a diagonal cross) with a little circle nestled in each angle. This piece too was dated from its style. Other buttons of this type date to the 17th century, so it’s likely this one does too. It is 1.2 inches in diameter, which means the 17th century button is more than half the width of the Bronze Age blade.

Because they’re made of copper alloy rather than gold or silver, it’s likely neither piece would have met the threshold to be declared official treasure at a coroner’s inquest. That means the finders would get to keep the artifacts instead of the Crown claiming them and giving a local museum the chance to acquire the pieces in exchange for a reward to be paid to the finders in the amount of the fair market value of the artifacts. The finders are avid history buffs, however, so they forewent the whole rigmarole and just straight donated the blade and button to the Newport Roman Villa museum.

June added:

“To be told the knife is several thousand years old is just incredible. We never thought what we found was so old.

“As it was found on the Island, we are very keen for residents and visitors to enjoy it and were happy to donate it to the council’s museum’s service so it can go on display.”



Lost Guercino found by Sopranos actor on display in US

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

A long-lost painting of Saint Sebastian by 17th century Baroque master Guercino that was found by actor Federico Castelluccio, aka mobster Furio Giunta on The Sopranos, is going on display in the United States for the first time. Its exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum is only the second time the painting has been on display since its rediscovery. It made its world debut at an exhibition dedicated to depictions of Saint Sebastian at the Castello di Miradolo museum in Turin last October. Guercino’s work scored top billing over the likes of Titian and Rubens as the cover picture of the show.

Castelluccio, who in addition to his acting credits is also an accomplished realist painter in his own right and a collector of Renaissance and Baroque Italian paintings, found this masterpiece the way they’re found in art nerd fairy tales. He was driving through Frankfurt in 2010 when a window filled with paintings caught his eye. It was the Dobritz auction house, a small local shop crammed with works scheduled to be sold at an auction in two weeks. In a stack of paintings on the staircase to the second floor of the shop, Castelluccio saw the Guercino. It immediately leapt out at him as the work of the Baroque master, the fine chiaroscuro belying the auction house manager’s lackluster description of the piece as “an 18th-century Italian holy painting of Saint Sebastian.”

It was estimated to sell for between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros ($1,100 – 1,657), which obviously Castelluccio was more than glad to pay on the spot, but the manager insisted that he attend the auction and bid for it like anyone else. When the actor actually showed up, flying back to Frankfurt from his home in New York specifically to bid on that Saint Sebastian, the manager got an inkling that they might have something a little more interesting than some anonymous 18th century holy painting. Someone else apparently had a similar inkling, because Castelluccio wound up in a duel with a phone bidder that drove the final hammer price up to 49,000 Euros ($54,000). Castelluccio and his business partner put in the winning bid.

Then came the hard work. Castelluccio instinctively believed the painting was an authentic Guercino, not the work of his studio or a later reproduction, but one man’s good taste is not an accepted authentication standard. First the painting was cleaned, conserved and suitably framed. This painstaking process took years during which Castelluccio did assiduous research on the painting’s history. Art historians and leading Guercino experts David Stone of the University of Delaware and Nicholas Turner, the former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were enlisted to thoroughly examine the work. They used X-rays, infrared reflectography and chemical pigment testing to determine the painting’s age and to compare its bones to those of known works by Guercino. They authenticated it as painted by Guercino’s hand around 1632-34.

There are only two other life-size, three-quarter view Saint Sebastians by Guercino known: a 1641 version now in the Moscow’s Pushkin Museum and one in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. The newly rediscovered one is the earliest of the three. While Castelluccio and his partner wound up spending about $140,000 total in acquiring, conserving, testing and researching the painting, if they were to sell it now it would certainly make millions. A King David by Guercino sold at Christie’s in London for close to $8 million (including buyer’s premium) and that was in 2010. The Christ and the Woman of Samaria bought privately by the Kimbell Art Museum that same year is thought to have gone for more than $10 million.

He and the co-owner may eventually sell the portrait, [Castelluccio] said, ideally to a prestigious institution.

A few of its previous owners have been identified, including the German countess Maria von Maltzan, a Resistance fighter during World War II who hid Jews and other escapees from the Nazis.

Once the painting was authenticated, art dealer Robert Simon, to whom Castelluccio had shown the work before it was cleaned, arranged for its loan to the Castello di Miradolo where Guercino’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was seen in the public again after 350 years in obscurity. Castelluccio got it back after the exhibition closed in March and then Princeton reached out to him to see if he’d be amenable to a more local exhibition. He was and now the painting is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum as a special installation until January of 2016.





October 2015
« Sep    


Add to Technorati Favorites